The idea that someone or something suffers for the benefit or as a representative of another is a theme that runs through the Bible. In the Old Testament, animals were substituted for persons to bear the punishment for human sin. They represented the sinful human, vicariously suffering even though they were innocent because they could not make moral decisions. The suffering servant of Isaiah 53 introduces the idea of a person suffering on behalf of others. In the New Testament, Jesus becomes the ultimate sacrifice for our sin and our substitute. He was the Suffering Servant prophesied by Isaiah and suffered vicariously for us. He willfully went to the cross for us.
In talking about the body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:12-26, Paul says that if one part of the body suffers then the whole body suffers. He was drawing attention to the fact that the body of Christ is a unity and that each part needs the other parts. One of the by-products of this unity is that we share blessings and suffering. Our experience is mutual. Our suffering is different than Christ’s in that while we may participate in the sufferings of Christ, we do not have the right or capacity to atone for the sins of others. That is Christ’s prerogative alone. He suffered and died for our sins, once and for all time (see Hebrews 7:27), but we do suffer for Christ’s sake and participate in Christ’s redemptive ministry to the world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is correct in saying that we only share in the suffering of others in a very limited degree. As hard as we may try, we do not really ‘feel their pain.’ We have an idea of what it is like but most likely it is at best a vague idea, unless we truly embrace their pain. When we become aware of the pain of others we are called to real sympathy and action, spawned not by our own sufferings but by the sufferings of those for whom Christ suffered (Letters and Papers from Prison, 14). We must enter into and engage the suffering of others. We must walk alongside them and show our true oneness with them. In that way we are being most Christ-like.
Our suffering may be on behalf of others. In Colossians 1:24, the Apostle Paul speaks of having suffered on behalf of the Colossian church. In a sense, as he ministered across Asia Minor, he represented all those Christians who were in support of and in concert with his ministry. He was there representing them and they were having ministry through him. What he was able to accomplish was also considered their accomplishment.
Those who suffer for Christ are representing the whole body and, for redemptive purposes, become an avenue for grace to those who are doing the persecution. We seek to be a light and a blessing to those who inflict punishment and pain upon us for our witness. As Bob Surge has said, when God wills for us to suffer for a season in a certain manner, God always has a redemptive purpose in it (Pain, Perplexity, and Promotion, 63-65). It is encouraging to know that our suffering is not in vain.
Roy Stults, PhD, is the Online Workshop Coordinator and Educational Services Coordinator for The Voice of the Martyrs. He graduated from Olivet Nazarene University (BA and MA), Nazarene Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Doctor of Missiology), and The University of Manchester (England) with a PhD (theology). A Vietnam veteran, Dr. Stults served as a missionary for 19 years and pastored U.S. churches for eight years. Prior to joining VOM, he was a Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.